“DEAR SMONIE:— We were sitting at table yesterday in the great dining-room which you remember, with the door wide open leading to the terrace, where the flowers are all in bloom. I was a little bored. Dear grandpapa had been cross all the morning, and poor mamma dared not say a word, being afraid of those frowning eyebrows which have always laid down the law for her. I was thinking what a pity it was to be so entirely alone, in the middle of the summer, in such a lovely spot, and that I should be very glad, now that I have left the convent, and am destined to pass whole seasons in the country, to have as in the old day, some one to run about the woods and paths with me.
“To be sure, Georges comes occasionally, but he always arrives very late, just in time for dinner, and is off again with my father in the morning before I am awake. And then he is a serious-minded man now, is Monsieur Georges. He works at the factory, and business cares often bring frowns to his brow.
“I had reached that point in my reflections when suddenly dear grandpapa turned abruptly to me:
“‘What has become of your little friend Sidonie? I should be glad to have her here for a time.’
“You can imagine my delight. What happiness to meet again, to renew the pleasant friendship that was broken off by the fault of the events of life rather than by our own! How many things we shall have to tell each other! You, who alone had the knack of driving the frowns from my terrible grandpapa’s brow, will bring us gayety, and I assure you we need it.
“This lovely Savigny is so lonely! For instance, sometimes in the morning I choose to be a little coquettish. I dress myself, I make myself beautiful with my hair in curls and put on a pretty gown; I walk through all the paths, and suddenly I realize that I have taken all this trouble for the swans and ducks, my dog Kiss, and the cows, who do not even turn to look at me when I pass. Thereupon, in my wrath, I hurry home, put on a thick gown and busy myself on the farm, in the servants’ quarters, everywhere. And really, I am beginning to believe that ennui has perfected me, and that I shall make an excellent housekeeper.
“Luckily the hunting season will soon be here, and I rely upon that for a little amusement. In the first place, Georges and father, both enthusiastic sportsmen, will come oftener. And then you will be here, you know. For you will reply at once that you will come, won’t you? Monsieur Risler said not long ago that you were not well. The air of Savigny will do you worlds of good.
“Everybody here expects you. And I am dying with impatience.
Her letter written, Claire Fromont donned a large straw hat for the first days of August were warm and glorious — and went herself to drop it in the little box from which the postman collected the mail from the chateau every morning.
It was on the edge of the park, at a turn in the road. She paused a moment to look at the trees by the roadside, at the neighboring meadows sleeping in the bright sunlight. Over yonder the reapers were gathering the last sheaves. Farther on they were ploughing. But all the melancholy of the silent toil had vanished, so far as the girl was concerned, so delighted was she at the thought of seeing her friend once more.
No breeze came from the hills in the distance, no voice from the trees, to warn her by a presentiment, to prevent her from sending that fatal letter. And immediately upon her return she gave her attention to the preparation of a pretty bedroom for Sidonie adjoining her own.
The letter did its errand faithfully. From the little green, vine-embowered gate of the chateau it found its way to Paris, and arrived that same evening, with its Savigny postmark and impregnated with the odor of the country, at the fifth-floor apartment on the Rue de Braque.
What an event that was! They read it again and again; and for a whole week, until Sidonie’s departure, it lay on the mantel-shelf beside Madame Chebe’s treasures, the clock under a glass globe and the Empire cups. To Sidonie it was like a wonderful romance filled with tales of enchantment and promises, which she read without opening it, merely by gazing at the white envelope whereon Claire Fromont’s monogram was engraved in relief.
Little she thought of marriage now. The important question was, What clothes should she wear at the chateau? She must give her whole mind to that, to cutting and planning, trying on dresses, devising new ways of arranging her hair. Poor Frantz! How heavy his heart was made by these preparations! That visit to Savigny, which he had tried vainly to oppose, would cause a still further postponement of their wedding, which Sidonie-why, he did not know — persisted in putting off from day to day. He could not go to see her; and when she was once there, in the midst of festivities and pleasures, who could say how long she would remain?
The lover in his despair always went to the Delobelles to confide his sorrows, but he never noticed how quickly Desiree rose as soon as he entered, to make room for him by her side at the work-table, and how she at once sat down again, with cheeks as red as fire and shining eyes.
For some days past they had ceased to work at birds and insects for ornament. The mother and daughter were hemming pink flounces destined for Sidonie’s frock, and the little cripple never had plied her needle with such good heart.
In truth little Desiree was not Delobelle’s daughter to no purpose.
She inherited her father’s faculty of retaining his illusions, of hoping on to the end and even beyond.
While Frantz was dilating upon his woe, Desire was thinking that, when Sidonie was gone, he would come every day, if it were only to talk about the absent one; that she would have him there by her side, that they would sit up together waiting for “father,” and that, perhaps, some evening, as he sat looking at her, he would discover the difference between the woman who loves you and the one who simply allows herself to be loved.
Thereupon the thought that every stitch taken in the frock tended to hasten the departure which she anticipated with such impatience imparted extraordinary activity to her needle, and the unhappy lover ruefully watched the flounces and ruffles piling up about her, like little pink, white-capped waves.
When the pink frock was finished, Mademoiselle Chebe started for Savigny.
The chateau of M. Gardinois was built in the valley of the Orge, on the bank of that capriciously lovely stream, with its windmills, its little islands, its dams, and its broad lawns that end at its shores.
The chateau, an old Louis-Quinze structure, low in reality, although made to appear high by a pointed roof, had a most depressing aspect, suggestive of aristocratic antiquity; broad steps, balconies with rusty balustrades, old urns marred by time, wherein the flowers stood out vividly against the reddish stone. As far as the eye could see, the walls stretched away, decayed and crumbling, descending gradually toward the stream. The chateau overlooked them, with its high, slated roofs, the farmhouse, with its red tiles, and the superb park, with its lindens, ash-trees, poplars and chestnuts growing confusedly together in a dense black mass, cut here and there by the arched openings of the paths.
But the charm of the old place was the water, which enlivened its silence and gave character to its beautiful views. There were at Savigny, to say nothing of the river, many springs, fountains, and ponds, in which the sun sank to rest in all his glory; and they formed a suitable setting for that venerable mansion, green and mossy as it was, and slightly worn away, like a stone on the edge of a brook.
Unluckily, at Savigny, as in most of those gorgeous Parisian summer palaces, which the parvenus in commerce and speculation have made their prey, the chatelains were not in harmony with the chateau.
Since he had purchased his chateau, old Gardinois had done nothing but injure the beauty of the beautiful property chance had placed in his hands; cut down trees “for the view,” filled his park with rough obstructions to keep out trespassers, and reserved all his solicitude for a magnificent kitchen-garden, which, as it produced fruit and vegetables in abundance, seemed to him more like his own part of the country — the land of the peasant.
As for the great salons, where the panels with paintings of famous subjects were fading in the autumn fogs, as for the ponds overrun with water-lilies, the grottoes, the stone bridges, he cared for them only because of the admiration of visitors, and because of such elements was composed that thing which so flattered his vanity as an ex-dealer in cattle — a chateau!
Being already old, unable to hunt or fish, he passed his time superintending the most trivial details of that large property. The grain for the hens, the price of the last load of the second crop of hay, the number of bales of straw stored in a magnificent circular granary, furnished him with matter for scolding for a whole day; and certain it is that, when one gazed from a distance at that lovely estate of Savigny, the chateau on the hillside, the river, like a mirror, flowing at its feet, the high terraces shaded by ivy, the supporting wall of the park following the majestic slope of the ground, one never would have suspected the proprietor’s niggardliness and meanness of spirit.
In the idleness consequent upon his wealth, M. Gardinois, being greatly bored in Paris, lived at Savigny throughout the year, and the Fromonts lived with him during the summer.
Madame Fromont was a mild, dull woman, whom her father’s brutal despotism had early molded to passive obedience for life. She maintained the same attitude with her husband, whose constant kindness and indulgence never had succeeded in triumphing over that humiliated, taciturn nature, indifferent to everything, and, in some sense, irresponsible. Having passed her life with no knowledge of business, she had become rich without knowing it and without the slightest desire to take advantage of it. Her fine apartments in Paris, her father’s magnificent chateau, made her uncomfortable. She occupied as small a place as possible in both, filling her life with a single passion, order — a fantastic, abnormal sort of order, which consisted in brushing, wiping, dusting, and polishing the mirrors, the gilding and the door-knobs, with her own hands, from morning till night.
When she had nothing else to clean, the strange woman would attack her rings, her watch-chain, her brooches, scrubbing the cameos and pearls, and, by dint of polishing the combination of her own name and her husband’s, she had effaced all the letters of both. Her fixed idea followed her to Savigny. She picked up dead branches in the paths, scratched the moss from the benches with the end of her umbrella, and would have liked to dust the leaves and sweep down the old trees; and often, when in the train, she looked with envy at the little villas standing in a line along the track, white and clean, with their gleaming utensils, the pewter ball, and the little oblong gardens, which resemble drawers in a bureau. Those were her ideal of a country-house.
M. Fromont, who came only occasionally and was always absorbed by his business affairs, enjoyed Savigny little more than she. Claire alone felt really at home in that lovely park. She was familiar with its smallest shrub. Being obliged to provide her own amusements, like all only children, she had become attached to certain walks, watched the flowers bloom, had her favorite path, her favorite tree, her favorite bench for reading. The dinner-bell always surprised her far away in the park. She would come to the table, out of breath but happy, flushed with the fresh air. The shadow of the hornbeams, stealing over that youthful brow, had imprinted a sort of gentle melancholy there, and the deep, dark green of the ponds, crossed by vague rays, was reflected in her eyes.
Those lovely surroundings had in very truth shielded her from the vulgarity and the abjectness of the persons about her. M. Gardinois might deplore in her presence, for hours at a time, the perversity of tradesmen and servants, or make an estimate of what was being stolen from him each month, each week, every day, every minute; Madame Fromont might enumerate her grievances against the mice, the maggots, dust and dampness, all desperately bent upon destroying her property, and engaged in a conspiracy against her wardrobes; not a word of their foolish talk remained in Claire’s mind. A run around the lawn, an hour’s reading on the river-bank, restored the tranquillity of that noble and intensely active mind.
Her grandfather looked upon her as a strange being, altogether out of place in his family. As a child she annoyed him with her great, honest eyes, her straightforwardness on all occasions, and also because he did not find in her a second edition of his own passive and submissive daughter.
“That child will be a proud chit and an original, like her father,” he would say in his ugly moods.
How much better he liked that little Chebe girl who used to come now and then and play in the avenues at Savigny! In her, at least, he detected the strain of the common people like himself, with a sprinkling of ambition and envy, suggested even in those early days by a certain little smile at the corner of the mouth. Moreover, the child exhibited an ingenuous amazement and admiration in presence of his wealth, which flattered his parvenu pride; and sometimes, when he teased her, she would break out with the droll phrases of a Paris gamine, slang redolent of the faubourgs, seasoned by her pretty, piquant face, inclined to pallor, which not even superficiality could deprive of its distinction. So he never had forgotten her.
On this occasion above all, when Sidonie arrived at Savigny after her long absence, with her fluffy hair, her graceful figure, her bright, mobile face, the whole effect emphasized by mannerisms suggestive of the shop-girl, she produced a decided sensation. Old Gardinois, wondering greatly to see a tall young woman in place of the child he was expecting to see, considered her prettier and, above all, better dressed than Claire.
It was a fact that, when Mademoiselle Chebe had left the train and was seated in the great wagonette from the chateau, her appearance was not bad; but she lacked those details that constituted her friend’s chief beauty and charm — a distinguished carriage, a contempt for poses, and, more than all else, mental tranquillity. Her prettiness was not unlike her gowns, of inexpensive materials, but cut according to the style of the day-rags, if you will, but rags of which fashion, that ridiculous but charming fairy, had regulated the color, the trimming, and the shape. Paris has pretty faces made expressly for costumes of that sort, very easy to dress becomingly, for the very reason that they belong to no type, and Mademoiselle Sidonie’s face was one of these.
What bliss was hers when the carriage entered the long avenue, bordered with velvety grass and primeval elms, and at the end Savigny awaiting her with its great gate wide open!
And how thoroughly at ease she felt amid all those refinements of wealth! How perfectly that sort of life suited her! It seemed to her that she never had known any other.
Suddenly, in the midst of her intoxication, arrived a letter from Frantz, which brought her back to the realities of her life, to her wretched fate as the future wife of a government clerk, which transported her, whether she would or no, to the mean little apartment they would occupy some day at the top of some dismal house, whose heavy atmosphere, dense with privation, she seemed already to breathe.
Should she break her betrothal promise?
She certainly could do it, as she had given no other pledge than her word. But when he had left her, who could say that she would not wish him back?
In that little brain, turned by ambition, the strangest ideas chased one another. Sometimes, while Grandfather Gardinois, who had laid aside in her honor his old-fashioned hunting-jackets and swanskin waistcoats, was jesting with her, amusing himself by contradicting her in order to draw out a sharp reply, she would gaze steadily, coldly into his eyes, without replying. Ah! if only he were ten years younger! But the thought of becoming Madame Gardinois did not long occupy her. A new personage, a new hope came into her life.
After Sidonie’s arrival, Georges Fromont, who was seldom seen at Savigny except on Sundays, adopted the habit of coming to dinner almost every day.
He was a tall, slender, pale youth, of refined appearance. Having no father or mother, he had been brought up by his uncle, M. Fromont, and was looked upon by him to succeed him in business, and probably to become Claire’s husband. That ready-made future did not arouse any enthusiasm in Georges. In the first place business bored him. As for his cousin, the intimate good-fellowship of an education in common and mutual confidence existed between them, but nothing more, at least on his side.
With Sidonie, on the contrary, he was exceedingly embarrassed and shy, and at the same time desirous of producing an effect — a totally different man, in short. She had just the spurious charm, a little free, which was calculated to attract a superficial nature, and it was not long before she discovered the impression that she produced upon him.
When the two girls were walking together in the park, it was always Sidonie who remembered that it was time for the train from Paris to arrive. They would go together to the gate to meet the travellers, and Georges’s first glance was always for Mademoiselle Chebe, who remained a little behind her friend, but with the poses and airs that go halfway to meet the eyes. That manoeuvring between them lasted some time. They did not mention love, but all the words, all the smiles they exchanged were full of silent avowals.
One cloudy and threatening summer evening, when the two friends had left the table as soon as dinner was at an end and were walking in the long, shady avenue, Georges joined them. They were talking upon indifferent subjects, crunching the gravel beneath their idling footsteps, when Madame Fromont’s voice, from the chateau, called Claire away. Georges and Sidonie were left alone. They continued to walk along the avenue, guided by the uncertain whiteness of the path, without speaking of drawing nearer to each other.
A warm wind rustled among the leaves. The ruffled surface of the pond lapped softly against the arches of the little bridge; and the blossoms of the acacias and lindens, detached by the breeze, whirled about in circles, perfuming the electricity-laden air. They felt themselves surrounded by an atmosphere of storm, vibrant and penetrating. Dazzling flashes of heat passed before their troubled eyes, like those that played along the horizon.
“Oh! what lovely glow-worms!” exclaimed Sidonie, embarrassed by the oppressive silence broken by so many mysterious sounds.
On the edge of the greensward a blade of grass here and there was illuminated by a tiny, green, flickering light. She stooped to lift one on her glove. Georges knelt close beside her; and as they leaned down, their hair and cheeks touching, they gazed at each other for a moment by the light of the glow-worms. How weird and fascinating she seemed to him in that green light, which shone upon her face and died away in the fine network of her waving hair! He put his arm around her waist, and suddenly, feeling that she abandoned herself to him, he clasped her in a long, passionate embrace.
“What are you looking for?” asked Claire, suddenly coming up in the shadow behind them.
Taken by surprise, and with a choking sensation in his throat, Georges trembled so that he could not reply. Sidonie, on the other hand, rose with the utmost coolness, and said as she shook out her skirt:
“The glow-worms. See how many of them there are tonight. And how they sparkle.”
Her eyes also sparkled with extraordinary brilliancy.
“The storm makes them, I suppose,” murmured Georges, still trembling.
The storm was indeed near. At brief intervals great clouds of leaves and dust whirled from one end of the avenue to the other. They walked a few steps farther, then all three returned to the house. The young women took their work, Georges tried to read a newspaper, while Madame Fromont polished her rings and M. Gardinois and his son-in-law played billiards in the adjoining room.
How long that evening seemed to Sidonie! She had but one wish, to be alone-alone with her thoughts.
But, in the silence of her little bedroom, when she had put out her light, which interferes with dreams by casting too bright an illumination upon reality, what schemes, what transports of delight! Georges loved her, Georges Fromont, the heir of the factory! They would marry; she would be rich. For in that mercenary little heart the first kiss of love had awakened no ideas save those of ambition and a life of luxury.
To assure herself that her lover was sincere, she tried to recall the scene under the trees to its most trifling details, the expression of his eyes, the warmth of his embrace, the vows uttered brokenly, lips to lips, it that weird light shed by the glow-worms, which one solemn moment had fixed forever in her heart.
Oh! the glow-worms of Savigny!
All night long they twinkled like stars before her closed eyes. The park was full of them, to the farthest limits of its darkest paths. There were clusters of them all along the lawns, on the trees, in the shrubbery. The fine gravel of the avenues, the waves of the river, seemed to emit green sparks, and all those microscopic flashes formed a sort of holiday illumination in which Savigny seemed to be enveloped in her honor, to celebrate the betrothal of Georges and Sidonie.
When she rose the next day, her plan was formed. Georges loved her; that was certain. Did he contemplate marrying her? She had a suspicion that he did not, the clever minx! But that did not frighten her. She felt strong enough to triumph over that childish nature, at once weak and passionate. She had only to resist him, and that is exactly what she did.
For some days she was cold and indifferent, wilfully blind and devoid of memory. He tried to speak to her, to renew the blissful moment, but she avoided him, always placing some one between them.
Then he wrote to her.
He carried his notes himself to a hollow in a rock near a clear spring called “The Phantom,” which was in the outskirts of the park, sheltered by a thatched roof. Sidonie thought that a charming episode. In the evening she must invent some story, a pretext of some sort for going to “The Phantom” alone. The shadow of the trees across the path, the mystery of the night, the rapid walk, the excitement, made her heart beat deliciously. She would find the letter saturated with dew, with the intense cold of the spring, and so white in the moonlight that she would hide it quickly for fear of being surprised.
And then, when she was alone, what joy to open it, to decipher those magic characters, those words of love which swam before her eyes, surrounded by dazzling blue and yellow circles, as if she were reading her letter in the bright sunlight.
“I love you! Love me!” wrote Georges in every conceivable phrase.
At first she did not reply; but when she felt that he was fairly caught, entirely in her power, she declared herself concisely:
“I never will love any one but my husband.”
Ah! she was a true woman already, was little Chebe.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49